Having concluded the successful appeal for fabric in 2015 the operators and myself hoped for a quiet year in 2016. Unfortunately the issues of young people taking recreational drugs at social gatherings and in music-led environments came to a head again this year.
Two further young lives were lost by individuals who were determined to take MDMA as part of their night out. Ultimately this led to the summary review of the premises licence at fabric, the suspension of the premises licence, the revocation of the licence and the eventual reinstatement of the licence after significant time was invested by the operator, the police and the licensing authority in coming to a compromise which all parties were able to sign off – removing the need for a week long appeal at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court.
The case in itself highlights the huge challenges to the leisure industry and enforcement agencies surrounding issues in the night time economy.
I think the hardest part for me in the whole process was attending the inquest at the Coroner’s Court when the family, friends, staff and medic who tried to save Ryan Brown’s life all gave evidence before the coroner. I had been working on this case for several months by that stage, and had looked after fabric’s licensing affairs for three years. Everything was brought into sharp focus when I saw young men similar to those who socialise with my elder daughters emotionally giving evidence about the loss of their friend. The Coroner highlighted that the evidence had shown a naivety in drug use and she expressed concern that whatever she would say, young people would still run the risks associated with taking recreational drugs. She highlighted the need for better education systems and praised the medical facilities that are available at fabric.
The proceedings before the Licensing Authority and in the run up to the appeal again stressed the difficult circumstances that operators have in keeping drugs away from their venues. I represent bars, hotel operators, restaurants and venues more traditionally associated with the late night sector. None of these types of premises are immune from people taking drugs within them. I am constantly surprised at where drug taking now takes place and by huge challenges for operators and enforcement officers alike.
The fabric case has re-emphasised the need for operators to never stand still. One of the key offers which has been put in place by fabric moving forward is a “Target Hardening Programme”. This will see significantly different types of searching and management of the front door of the premises in an attempt to make it harder for individuals to take drugs into the premises. The difficulty is that searching cannot be intimate and it is so easy for tablets and small amounts of powdered MDMA to be smuggled in intimate places.
The more I am involved in cases such as this, the more I am of the view that enlightened enforcement protocols, which include education rather than just prohibition, are the way forward. As the coroner emphasised, nothing she was going to say would stop young people who believe they are invincible.
The statistics which Professor Measham has shared with us during these proceedings all push in that direction. There are significant issues with creating environments where naïve drug users are prepared to risk taking all of their drugs in one go – the consequences being potentially fatal when individuals “Double Drop”.
One of the key issues that has come about during the fabric case is the potential loss of the cultural and late night entertainment sector in major cities.
There is a need to invest significant sums in opening and maintaining premises such as fabric. They clearly serve a huge, loyal market. I have never been involved in a case before where a review managed to engender 872 positive representations in the review. This then led to 160,000 people signing a petition to save fabric. Many thousands of people then contributed over £300,000 to create a fighting fund to give fabric an opportunity to fight the revocation and re-open. The press coverage and reporting of the case has been at a level that I’ve never seen before and this is not purely because of the premises themselves but also the fact that people are awakening to the possibility that summary reviews could be used to remove other premises in a similar fashion.
I formed a view very early in these proceedings that a summary review was a blunt tool used to deal with the issues at the premises. If you read the preamble to the Violent Crime Reduction Act (the legislation that brought in summary reviews to the Licensing Act 2003) and all of the guidance documents since, you will see that this mechanism was brought in primarily to deal with premises associated with serious violent crime and weapons at premises.
Some months on we are in a position I genuinely believe we could have reached without the need for the premises to have closed for 4 months and this could have saved huge amounts of money on all sides, and the potential financial ruin of the business.
There have been instances during this period where I have been asked to advise police forces as to whether a summary review should be launched in certain circumstances. I have been slow to advise their commencement in a particular case which was associated with violence during football matches. We managed to set up a level of communication between the operator and the police, where everything was achieved by way of a minor variation rather than going down significantly costly litigation. It is still my advice that taking the foot off the gas and making a careful, considered approach can be significantly beneficial to all parties.
This is not written with criticism of the police in mind, in the circumstances of the fabric case. I accept entirely that the pressures in place are considerable when young people have lost their lives at licensed premises and there is a belief that the operator could do more to manage out drugs in their premises. However, as was borne out in the significant discussions with Islington Council and the police in the run up to the appeal in fabric, with a will on the part of all parties, a sensible conclusion can be reached which promotes the licensing objectives and hopefully allows the late night industry to flourish.